Music and Dementia

March 23, 2011

I will begin with a disclaimer:  I am not a music therapist.  Music therapy is the science by which trained, board certified individuals use music to assess the patient cognitively and in other ways, and engage the patient’s brain.  Yes, they sing and play instruments, but that, in and of itself, is not music therapy.  A discussion of the science behind it can wait for another day.  What I want to write about are the effects of music on those with dementia from the viewpoint of the layperson and the things you can do at home which will help engage your loved one.

The brain is an odd thing.  You would think that singing and speaking would be located in the same general area, that an inability to speak also would indicate an inability to sing.  Not so.  My father-in-law had not spoken in several months when he went to an in-patient hospice unit.  However, when we would sing the hymns of his childhood, he could join in.  If you can find the songs that are most familiar — religious songs if the person is religious (or was religious in her childhood) and / or songs from the person’s teens and early 20’s — these can often “awaken” those whom nothing else seems to reach.

I encourage you to watch a wonderful video on YouTube at where Naomi Feil interacts with Gladys Wilson, a lady with late stage Alzheimer’s disease.  Mrs. Wilson represents every non-verbal, late stage Alzheimer’s patient we’ve passed in the halls of nursing homes everywhere, thinking these people were beyond human interaction, beyond help.  The results are amazing and humbling.  Mrs. Wilson is still there.  Naomi Feil is able to reach her through the music Mrs. Wilson sang all her life, in this case the religious songs of her childhood.

Concert pianist Don Irwin, who often plays in nursing homes and assisted living units as a public service, speaks about his experiences.  The first time he played for those with dementia, Mr. Irwin wondered if the people would even know he was there.  However, they “awakened” after about 30 minutes of familiar music, some of them even standing up to dance!  He has continued to have this experience wherever he plays.

There are all kinds of medical benefits to music therapy which I am not qualified to discuss — mood elevation, calming of behavior, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, etc.  For those of us who just want to reconnect with a loved one, try the songs he has loved since childhood or those she danced to as a teenager or young adult.  You may be amazed at the results.

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One Response to “Music and Dementia”

  1. Eunice Lamont says:

    Working in aged care & community with Diversional Therapy. I agree music is a benefit to all especially dementia, alzheimer’s, people with mood, chatter changes to elation then having their lunch in good spirits with others. Especially also with family members present with there involvement and their smiles does reconnect everyone. Currently using the blue and red large print Ulverscroft song books for Saturday and need other similar resources.

    Have made a A4 booklet of 20 pages for Sunday’s Singalong with Hymns & songs with favourite songs of the residents choosing that I photocopy and replace when needed.

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